Friday, October 30, 2009

The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield.

NB recent post, 26/11/2015.

The term “gay”draws a number of elements around it: the homosexual, the homoerotic and the homosocial. It is not a term used easily. The matter isn’t helped much by using the term poet of a “gay sensibility”. That too often implies a poet who is gay, but writes about other things such that gay aspects appear here and there. The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (1987) was a curious mish-mash, not only in terms of “gay” but also in terms of poetry: it included a lot of verse-and-worse. Heavily featured poets included the Classical, Catullus, Strato, Martial and Meleager, the pseudo-classical, Cavafy, and Shakespeare and Barnfield.

To include 12 sonnets by Barnfield lifted an almost unknown poet into a major Classical league. It has always puzzled me if this was justified. Is the poetry of Barnfield so important in the history of “gay” poetries?

Richard Barnfield was born in 1574. He was in every way a contemporary of Shakespeare. Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) mixed Virgil and Spenser to tell of a relationship between Ganymede and Daphnis. It was typical Renaissance pastoral with a male-male relationship at the core, following the precedent set by Virgil, Bion and Theocritus. A few months later than this work, Barnfield published Cynthia (1595), a volume that extended the theme of The Affectionate Shepherd via twenty sonnets. This is the sonnet sequence filtered out by The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.

Sonnet 1 of Barnfield’s sequence is dedicated to Beauty, which enters the poet’s heart; like a thief, to steal his calm. Sonnet 2 is an extended conceit in which Beauty and Majesty yield to Virtue in Love’s battlefield. The battlefield in Sonnet 3 is extended to Philosophy; and the conclusion is that the greatest good is the Beloved’s “faire eye”. The sequence seems to be building towards the relationship of Love and Light…Spenserian Neo-Platonism…but Sonnet 4 only produces a well-worn sonnet idea: Ganymede’s eyes are like stars, he is the Sun, and his absence brings darkness to the poet. Sonnet 5 does not fair much better in terms of originality. A comparison between Achilles-War and Ganymede-Love is tediously worked through to an obvious conclusion. Very little of this appears in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (though 1 and 4 appear). Sonnets 6-8 are represented however as worthy of attention. And these are stronger. Suddenly, there is a progression from distant worshipping to homoerotic desire. Daphnis/Barnfield now longs to be kissed by “sweet coral lips”, to be a pillow to receive his lover’s kisses, and he delights, with an echo of Spenser, in his lover swimming like a “silver swan” in the Thames. It is nice poeticising. Sonnet 9 is a cooling down of the erotic tone, the equivalent of a cold shower for the hopefully (but unlikely) aroused reader. The history of Ganymede is revealed— he is born from Diana’s blood, that is to say, he is Chaste.Sonnets 10-12, also anthologised, work from chastity to revelation to admiration. Ganymede discovers that Daphnis loves him. The final poems run variations on what has gone before, slowly burying emotion with classical wit and allusions. Sonnet 17 advances the intimate connection between body and poetry:

Cherry lipped Adonis in his snow shape
Might not compare with his pure ivory white,
On whose fair front a poet might write
(XVII, 1-3).

In the ultimate poem, like a true Christian Neo-Platonist, Barnfield begins to place more hope in “favour from that heavenly grace”, but there is none of the genuine emotional torture heard in the sonnets of Michelangelo as he is torn between homoerotic earthly desire and the chaste love of God.

The sonnets of Richard Barnfield have a curiosity value, a place in the history of "gay" poetry, but little more. They never touch the homosexual, are fingered by the erotic, and fail to embrace the homosocial, to portray a relationship between two men with anything approaching depth and vision


Harlequin said...

perhaps, as you say, verse-and-worse; I had noticed some similar thematics in the poetic rendering of St.John of the Cross.... late night trysts involving ex/static experience based in prayer, but with a different intentionality, I think.

Eshuneutics said...

You make an excellent point, which occurred in different ways as I read poems after writing this piece. Ecstatic experience often contains the sexual--Donne and Vaughan, for example, The Ecstasy and Eternity--and Barnfield is pushing his homoerotic elements towards religious experience. Thanks for the new direction.

B. Trent said...

Thank you for your insightful commentary.

I treasured that anthology for years as one of the few sources of poems by men who loved men. To see it approached from a critical standpoint is refreshing.

Lately, I've been particularly moved by Cavafy.

One difficulty is in contemporary writers attempting to contain poets from other times and cultures within our contemporary conception of "gay" -- an identity construct entirely outside the experience of writers who pre-date that term, and which still refers to a predominantly Western (and white) construct.

Thanks for the brain food.

Eshuneutics said...

Hello, B Trent. Yes, we actually share the same perspective. It was an important anthology. It served a purpose too, for me. It gave visibility and for the first time (in the UK) it suggested that "gay" wasn't some easy-flat term, as if all gay men/poets were alike. It took a few personal experiences before I realised its narrowness, its White, Hellenic-Neo-Platonic defintion of gay poetry. As you say. Reading it now, I see a narrower focus still, a certain Oxbridge whiff, as if "gay" was a quaint elitism padded out with more earthy responses, included to broaden the picture. As if, you know, there was life outside the ivory towers, to be observed, but not that important in the grand schem of things. Only an academic bias could have found Barnfield as signifciant as Shakepeare. Thank you for the stimulating comment--in return.